GEORGE WALLACE: AMERICAN POPULIST details George Wallace’s racism-tainted rise from a lowly page working for the Alabama Senate to serious presidential contender. Lesher cites example after example, including Wallace’s notorious stand in the doorway at the University of Alabama, supporting the view that Wallace was a hardened racist and not the segregationist he claimed to be.
The conclusion that Lesher ultimately draws, however, is that Wallace’s politics of race were born more of Machiavellian expediency rather than personal conviction. Wallace used the issue of race because it won him votes; when blacks became an important voting bloc, his message grew more inclusive. Eventually, Wallace apologized to blacks for many of his earlier actions. This personal reformation culminated in a 1987 meeting with Jesse Jackson, during which Jackson knelt and prayed with the crippled and dying former governor.
Wallace’s greatest legacy, Lesher points out, probably will be his anti federalism. Lesher contends that since 1968, no politician, including Bill Clinton, has won the presidency without echoing Wallace’s distrust of big government, concern over crime, and defense of the middle class.
Ultimately, Lesher notes, Wallace has left a mixed legacy. As pure a politician as America has had in recent years, Wallace was inexorably drawn to the demands, opportunities, and excitement of political office. It will be interesting to see if history is as forgiving as were black Alabamians, who in 1986 voted Wallace the best governor in Alabama history.